Establishing how intergroup bias influences the formation and evolution of stereotypes.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

The proposed research will establish how the membership and status of social groups influences how cultural stereotypes form and change. Cultural stereotypes are template-like depictions of social categories whereby group membership is associated with the possession of certain attributes (e.g., scientists are geeky, Scottish people are miserly, men like the colour blue). Stereotypes exert substantial influence on us as individuals and on our society: when people endorse stereotypes it leads to prejudice and discrimination towards members of minority groups; even when people refute stereotypes the mere knowledge of their content can lead to unconscious bias in thoughts and behaviour. Yet, in the face of an infinitely complex social environment stereotypes play a vital social cognitive role by efficiently organising and structuring social information. Given their ubiquity and influence it is perhaps surprising that relatively little is known about how cultural stereotypes form and change.

We propose that stereotypes form and change via a process of cumulative cultural evolution. Because people possess shared biases that influence how information is remembered and communicated, when knowledge is repeatedly passed from person to person these biases accumulate causing the content of information to change in predictable ways. Research has shown that when information is passed down chains of individuals - a bit like the children's game often called 'Chinese whispers' or 'telephone' - it becomes increasingly simplified and structured. For example, we recently demonstrated that as novel social information passes from person to person it develops a stereotype-like structure that was not previously present. Thus, through the process of cumulative cultural evolution, even very small amounts of bias at the level of individual people can translate into much bigger societal biases like cultural stereotypes.

The proposed research will establish whether individual biases associated with a person's membership of social groups influences the formation and evolution of cultural stereotypes. Whether we perceive others as belonging to the same social group as ourselves (the in-group) or a different social group (the out-group) has profound implications for our thoughts and behaviours. Group membership tends to lead to intergroup bias, with people more likely to favour in-group members and discriminate against out-group members. The proposed research will determine whether repeatedly communicating social information about in-group and out-group members results in the formation of relatively positive in-group stereotypes and negative out-group stereotypes. In addition, the proposed research will also establish whether it is possible to predict how the content of stereotypes will evolve based on the perceived status of different out-groups (e.g., whether they are perceived to be high status or low status).

The proposed research will therefore help establish whether cumulative cultural evolution leads to the unintentional but inevitable formation of stereotypes, whose content is largely determined by the shared biases of perceivers rather than the actual properties of the groups themselves.

Planned Impact

Academic Impact

The proposed research will provide novel theoretical insight to a question of relevance to people from around the world - how do cultural stereotypes form and evolve? The research will employ an innovative cross-disciplinary approach, combining theory from social and cognitive psychology with theory and methods from evolutionary linguistics. Examining how stereotypes form and change as information is socially transmitted will not only help shed light on a question of central importance to social psychologists, it will also add to the knowledge base of the emerging multi-disciplinary area of cultural evolution. Because the investigators working on the proposed project will be drawn from diverse research backgrounds (i.e., social psychology, cognitive psychology, linguistics), the postdoctoral researcher working on the project will have a unique opportunity to develop a broad range of skills and knowledge that they might not necessarily be afforded on a within discipline project.


Societal impact

The most obvious, although not singular, negative aspect of stereotypes is their association with prejudice. Believing stereotypes to be true representations of social categories leads to prejudiced attitudes and behaviour. Prejudice leads to intergroup bias, which can result in individual, institutional or societal discrimination against members of particular social groups. Discrimination can manifest itself in many different forms, from direct and unconscious bias in work-based recruitment policies and selection decisions, to social conflict and even ethnic cleansing. What the multifarious forms of prejudice and discrimination have in common is their reliance on inaccurate stereotypic assumptions.

There is currently a sizeable knowledge gap between current scientific understanding of stereotypes and the perceptions of the general public and policy-makers. We will engage directly with the general public, with a diverse range of media and with the third sector to explain what stereotypes are, their positive and negative consequences, and the science that is uncovering their function, thereby providing impact that is of societal and personal relevance. We will also develop training on the influence of unconscious social bias in higher education; this training will initially be delivered to staff at the University of Aberdeen, before being offered to staff at the University of Abertay and the University of Edinburgh. If successful the training would then be made available to other higher education institutions throughout the UK.

Publications

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Martin D (2017) How societal stereotypes might form and evolve via cumulative cultural evolution in Social and Personality Psychology Compass

 
Description How do society's stereotypes form and change (or not change!)? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I gave an invited talk on stereotypes and social cognitive bias at the Gordon's Schools, Huntly. This event was organised by the Aberdeenshire Philosophy Cafe in Schools programme. The purpose of the talk was to inform school pupils about the potential effects of "Unconscious Bias" and to spark cafe style discussion and debate among the pupils. The talk was attended by around 50-secondary school children (14-16-year-old). There was considerable discussion after the talk. A large proportion of the audience reported having reconsidered their attitudes as a consequence of the talk. A post event questionnaire indicated that 82% of pupils reported having increased understanding after the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Ran an interactive stall as part of the University of Aberdeen Health Inclusion Week, which provided information about stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We ran an interactive stall illustrating the effects of stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination as part of the University of Aberdeen's Inclusion Week. The stall had posters providing information and a number of fun interactive tasks that people could take part in. We received very positive feedback from people taking part, with many stating that they felt better informed and that they would consider about their thoughts and behaviours differently in the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Ran an interactive stall at the University of Aberdeen Health and Well-being Day, which provided information about stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We ran an interactive stall illustrating the effects of stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination as part of the University of Aberdeen's Health and Well-being day. The stall had posters providing information and a number of fun interactive tasks that people could take part in. We received very positive feedback from people taking part, with many stating that they felt better informed and that they would consider about their thoughts and behaviours differently in the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Stereotypes and social cognitive bias: In the lab and in the wild 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave an invited talk on stereotypes and social cognitive bias to the Rowett Institute. The purpose of the talk was to inform members of the Institute about the potential effects of "Unconscious Bias". The talk was attended by around 80-researchers and academics. There was considerable discussion after the talk. A large proportion of the audience reported having reconsidered their attitudes as a consequence of the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Unconscious bias training for the School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I delivered unconscious bias training to all staff in the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen. This training prompted many questions and a number of staff reported having re-evaluated their thoughts and behaviours as a result of the session.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use (Banchory-Devenick Primary School, Aberdeenshire March 2019) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use. School pupils and teachers reported increased knowledge stereotypes and how they influence their lives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use (Mill O Forest Primary School, March 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use (Mill O Forest Primary School, March 2018). School pupils and teachers reported increased knowledge stereotypes and how they influence their lives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use (Portlethen Primary School, March 2019) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use. School pupils and teachers reported increased knowledge stereotypes and how they influence their lives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use (Portlethen Primary School, October 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We have participated in Science Week events and worked in partnership with local schools giving a series of talks around what stereotypes are, why we have them and how we might modulate their use. School pupils and teachers reported increased knowledge stereotypes and how they influence their lives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018